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Biotechnology

Voice-activated gizmos ready for every household need

Connected products spreading fast, from vacuums to heated blankets

This Bosch washing machine connects to the Amazon Echo voice-activated speaker.

BERLIN Household appliances that integrate with voice-activated virtual home assistants were everywhere at Europe's largest consumer electronics expo this year.

At IFA 2017, these connected products ranged from smart TVs being sold under the Toshiba brand by Turkish company Vestel to heated blankets by Germany's Beurer. Many of these electronics can also be activated via smartphones.

U.S. startup Neato Robotics unveiled a vacuuming robot that connects to one of several smart home platforms, including Amazon's Echo. For example, one can instruct the machine to clean house at a set day and hour each week, all by speaking to an Echo smart speaker.

British research company IHS Markit estimates that the AI-powered digital assistants market will reach 4 billion devices at the end of this year, and could reach 7 billion in 2020.

Most of these devices are compatible with Echo, as they should be -- since getting an early start in the field in 2014, Amazon's artificially intelligent speakers have captured a 70% share of the voice-controlled speaker market.

"We chose Amazon's technology because it's the most widespread," said a sales manager at Cerevo, a Tokyo startup that showcased its smart desk lamp at IFA.

Google joined the competition when it launched its own Google Home smart speaker in 2016. Third-party connected appliances are steadily adding Google Assistant, the American company's AI technology, to their list of compatible systems.

Neato's robot vacuum supports the AI services of both Amazon and Google. Germany's Elgato has unveiled five new household accessories, including smoke detectors and door locks, that are powered by Apple's HomeKit platform.

It is too early to tell, however, which home assistant option will dominate, said a representative for Bosch. The German technology group exhibited ovens and coffee makers that connect to Echo. Bosch also would like to make its devices compatible with the Google and Apple voice platforms in the future, said the rep.

Neato's robot vacuum supports the AI services of both Amazon and Google.

Interesting to note, no appliance at the trade show seemed to be compatible with Japanese AI technology. The likes of Fujitsu, Sony and Panasonic are developing their own AI voice assistants. Sharp has already launched ovens and small robots that respond to voice commands. The Nippon Telegraph & Telephone group is urging appliance and toy makers to adopt its voice-controlled AI system.

Japanese developments in the field are chiefly in the home language, and devices that can work in the English-speaking world are few.

Meanwhile, American companies are busy creating multi-language platforms. Google will market its Japanese-language voice-activated speaker in Japan this year. Amazon is planning to release Echo's Japanese version in due time. The language barrier that used to shield Japan's market from U.S. competitors is showing signs of cracking.

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